Critics: Faulty standards, no enforcement, cost at heart of bad food

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2003

COHASSET, Mass. Worried about all the fatty foods children were eating, town health officer Joseph Godzik recently ordered junk food purged from the local school lunch menu one day a week.

No pizza. No burgers. No fries.

School officials said, "No way."

Eliminate such popular items and students will switch from buying to brown-bagging, school officials reasoned. Because lunch programs must pay for themselves, messing with the menu can mean losing money.

But money matters are only one obstacle to slimming down school lunches.

There is also the kind of food the government sends schools mostly meat, cheese and refined grains and the government's failure to enforce its own rules, which limit fat to 30 percent of school lunch calories.


Graphic shows percent of lunch commodities purchased by the USDA in 2003;

As a result, three out of four schools still serve too much fat; many schools undercut healthy offerings by also selling junk food; there aren't enough vegetables and fruits; and not nearly enough is done to teach good eating habits, according to government studies and nutrition experts.

Those problems persist even though federal officials have worked for a decade to improve school meals. The U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program for 28 million children in 98,000 public and nonprofit private schools, says it has toughened its rules and worked to get more fresh fruits and vegetables to schools.

Some schools themselves try to improve their meals, but progress is often slowed by a morass of financial, bureaucratic and social impediments.

In Cohasset, a well-to-do town of 7,300, Godzik acknowledges that even doing the right thing sometimes is wrong.

''One of the things we don't want to do is have the school cafeteria just offer healthy stuff and have the kids all bring lunch from home and have it all be junk,'' he said.



Graphic shows percent of lunch commodities purchased by the USDA in 2003;


In theory, serving healthy lunches should be easy. Federal regulations dictate calories and nutrients, and the USDA provides 20 percent of school lunch food.

In reality, enforcement of the rules is spotty, and critics complain that the farm products the government buys for schools cater more to agricultural interests than healthy meal-planning.

Dr. Walter Willett, head of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, is a harsh critic of the School Lunch Program: ''Their foods tend to be at the bottom of the barrel in terms of healthy nutrition.

''They are loaded with high amounts of trans fats and they're loaded with refined starches and sugar,'' he said. Trans fatty acids, common in baked and fried goods, have been linked to increased risk of heart disease.

Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services program, says there have been significant improvements, however, and that many schools now offer innovative and healthy lunches. She believes new data in 2006 will prove that.

She also argues that involving the entire community in healthy eating and requiring physical fitness classes only one state makes them mandatory should be of equal concern.

But even federal studies show most lunches have too much fat, even after the USDA overhauled the program in 1994 and set the 30 percent limit on fat.

Things improved, but 75 percent of the schools from elementary through high school still failed to meet the lower-fat guidelines, according to a 2001 USDA study. Nearly every school failed to meet limits for salt.

Daniel said the study analyzed what children ate, not what they were offered. She said 80 percent of schools offer combinations of foods that meet the guidelines, but children often make unhealthy choices.

Marilyn Tanner, a dietitian at Washing-ton University School of Medicine in St. Louis, called that unacceptable.

''Let's give choices, but let's make sure they're healthy choices,'' said Tanner, also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. ''It's not, 'Are we going to eat a vegetable?' It's 'Which vegetable are we going to eat?'''

Willett complains that the focus on fat has obscured an equally important issue starches and refined carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta and white bread) that make up half of school lunch calories.

The amount of meat and dairy is what concerns Jennifer Keller, nutrition coordinator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based group that favors vegetarian diets.

She said the commodity program favors meat and dairy producers in part because of the USDA's other responsibility ensuring stable farm prices.

In fiscal year 2003, the USDA spent $939.5 million on lunch commodities, with two-thirds of that going to meat and dairy. A little more than one-quarter of the total went toward fruits and vegetables, mostly canned and frozen. The most common vegetable on the lunch line is a potato.

The government guidelines say meals should be based on grains (especially whole grains), fruits and vegetables, accompanied by moderate amounts of lowfat meat, fish, beans and dairy products.

Keller also complained about milk, the only item required for every meal, and noted that chocolate milk passes muster. Also, nearly two-thirds of all milk ordered by schools is high in fat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preven-tion.

Daniel contends chocolate milk is better than no milk.

Further complicating the healthy lunch equation is easy access to snacks and sugary drinks. More than a fifth of lunch programs offer brand-name fast food, and nearly all high schools have vending machines selling junk food, according to a 2000 CDC study.

''We're basically conveying the message that any junk goes,'' Willett said.



But the picture isn't entirely bleak. Many schools are getting tough on junk food. State lawmakers around the country are pushing for limits. California and New York City recently passed bans on junk food in school vending machines.

Congress also is in the midst of reauthorizing the $6.7 billion lunch program, opening the door for change, though critics aren't hopeful.

Nearly 60 percent of districts have upped fresh fruit and vegetable purchases, according to the USDA. Nearly half also are buying more low- and reduced-fat foods. And spending for a Department of Defense program that delivers fresh produce to schools has been doubled to $50 million.

Barry Sackin, spokesperson for the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va., agreed schools have a role in the obesity battle, but so do parents.

''If kids eat (school) lunches five days a week, that's still less than 25 percent of the meals that kids eat,'' Sackin said.



Alison Forrest doesn't mind working hard to feed her children healthy lunches. She bakes whole wheat bread from scratch and turns fresh tomatoes into marinara. She prepares salad greens from a neighboring farm and cottage cheese from a Vermont dairy.

The result is a welcoming kitchen filled with homey, tempting aromas.

But the kitchen isn't in her home, and the children aren't her own. Forrest is food service director at Brewster-Pierce Memorial School in rural Huntington, Vt., where little comes from a can and nearly everything is organic.

Forrest takes a holistic approach to nutrition. She believes getting children to eat better takes patience, education and quality foods. She introduces new ingredients in the classroom instead of on the lunch line.

She recently offered raw broccoli to third- and fourth-graders. Amid exclamations of ''cool'' and ''sweet,'' nearly every child begged for seconds and thirds.

''Changing a kid's palate is a gradual process and the more kids know about what they're eating, where it comes from and why it's good for them, the more likely they'll eat it,'' she said.

What should children be eating? What the USDA regulations call for might be a good start; they're healthier than the average American diet, many nutritionists say.

''If we provided them that, we'd be a lot better off and it would be a role model situation,'' said Tanner, the dietitian.

And according to those regulations, Forrest's lunches shouldn't be an exception.

Despite the gap between standards and execution, many want even tougher regulations. Willett wants more whole grains, the Physicians Committee wants soy milk and vegetarian meals, and everyone wants more fresh produce.

Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health said the issue is being over-analyzed: ''The biggest problem right now ... is too many calories in and too few calories out.''

Antonia Demas, director of the Food Studies Institute in Trumansburg, N.Y., said the classroom must be part of any solution. She wants nutrition education mandated the same way New York schools are required to teach HIV prevention.

''You can put the healthiest foods in front of kids and if they don't know what they are and have not been exposed to them in a positive way, they won't eat them,'' she said.

Robert Levy, food service director in Cohasset, wants it taken even further, saying the broader the effort to educate, the easier it is for him to make changes.

''It has to be taught in the classroom. It has to be taught at home. It has to be served in the lunch room,'' he said.

Forrest said her homegrown approach the children plant potatoes and shell their own beans is a model that can be applied anywhere. In fact, large urban schools often have better access to fresh produce, she said.

''I'm a small school and only one local farm will drive all the way out here,'' she said of her town of nearly 1,900 people. ''But larger schools aren't far from farms' (shipping routes) and can order more.''

And if good nutrition isn't reason enough, Forrest has a bottom-line reason to clean up the menu.

''If you have good quality fruits and vegetables, not only will there be less waste, but more adults will come in to eat. You can almost subsidize your program with adult meals,'' she said, noting that teachers even ask to buy her leftovers.



When ideas for better menus are rejected by schools such as Cohasset, where the lunch program has run a deficit during five of the past six years, many point to the money.

Most lunch programs get little or no local funding, leaving them to pay their way with meal sales and federal reimbursements that range from 21 cents to $2.36 per meal served. They also get 15 cents credit per meal to spend on commodities.

Those finances create a sometimes impossible juggle in which schools must serve meals that are cost-effective to prepare, appeal to children and meet federal guidelines.

Even with food that marries healthy, cheap and flavorful, it's more complicated than a simple menu change. Training cafeteria staff to prepare new foods and educating pupils and parents takes time and money. It's a balance that can make even small changes difficult.

Barbara Gates thought she was starting small in her battle to get more vegetables on the menu at Crest Elementary School in El Cajon, Calif. She wanted minestrone soup substituted for pepperoni pizza twice a month.

''Are you kidding? Pizza is our biggest seller. I'm surprised we're not selling it more,'' Gates said a USDA consultant told her and other parents in a meeting two years ago.

Even if money wasn't an issue, enforcement is.

The school lunch program was created in 1946 to prevent malnutrition, and the only real penalties are for schools that fail to feed children enough.

Faced with the opposite problem, the school lunch bureaucracy lacks a mechanism for penalizing schools that feed too much fat. Though the government could withhold reimbursements, it never has happened.

Daniel said her agency prefers to work with schools for improvement rather than punish them, despite a 1998 deadline for compliance. She said progress that has been made indicates the system is working.

As part of the reauthorization of the lunch program, the USDA wants Congress to create financial incentives for schools that serve healthy meals.

Limitations in the commodity program are another common complaint among schools trying to serve better food. The USDA says the agency isn't set up to handle large quantities of perishables. Schools are encouraged to buy fresh produce locally.

But buying local can be difficult, in part because many schools have contracts with large suppliers that require a district buy all its products from them.

Even getting the right commodities can be a problem. State officials decide based on demand which items will be available to schools. One result of that is that Forrest can't get brown rice.

And though she praises some commodities, Forrest said others seem a waste of taxpayer money.

She said the USDA once offered her some vanilla pudding. ''They said, 'It has no nutritional value. How much do you want?'

''I didn't take any,'' she said.

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